Plague after plague befall the Egyptians, nonetheless Pharaoh remains steadfast in his refusal to release the Israelites. Finally the last plague, the death of the first born, beats Pharaoh into submission. This final plague was actually the first to be foretold to Moses:
And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go to return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand, but I will harden his heart, so that he shall not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus said the Lord, "Israel is my son, my firstborn. And I say to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn."'" (Exodus 4:21-23)
Thus, when the time finally comes, God does not even tell Moses what the final plague will be, because Moses already knows.1 God says to Moses:
And the Lord said to Moses, "Yet will I bring one plague more upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt. Afterwards he will let you go from here. When he shall let you go, he shall certainly thrust you out from here altogether." (Exodus 11:1)
And Moses says to Pharaoh:
And Moses said, "Thus said the Lord, 'About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt. And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.'"(Exodus 11:4-6)
Tradition tells us that this plague was the most severe.2 The fact that this is the one of which Moses was told prior to his return to Egypt would indicate that this plague was one of the objectives of the Exodus.3 The question is, why does the punishment of the firstborn occupy such a central role?
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THE PLAUGE OF THE FIRSTBORN
If we return to the Book of Genesis and analyze the promise that God gave Abraham we will understand the core of the Exodus story:
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a fear of great darkness fell upon him. And He [God] said to Abram, "Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth." (Genesis 15:12-14)
The nation which afflicts the descendants of Abraham will be judged for their indiscretions. The mode of judgment is unclear.
This verse is echoed in the revelation to Moses at the Burning Bush:
"And I will stretch out my hand, and strike Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall come to pass, that, when you go, you shall not go empty, but every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters, and you shall plunder the Egyptians." (Exodus 3:20-22)
Here both the "judgment" of the oppressing nation is recorded as well as the wealth which was to accompany the Jews on their departure. In Genesis, only a judgment is mentioned.
In his comments to Genesis,4 Nachmanides insists that the judgement would be concerned with determining whether the oppressing nation had followed the Divine plan of enslaving the Jewish people, or if they had gone "beyond the call of duty."
According to this opinion, ostensibly the Egyptians could have been judged and found innocent, since Genesis does not speak of any punishment per se. For the Jews to have left Egypt with great wealth, in payment for the sweat of their collective brows would have sufficed as fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.
But as we know, the Egyptians were not exonerated. They had assumed the role of oppressors with enthusiasm, with a vengeance. The promise to Abraham enumerated enslavement in a foreign land; genocide was never part of the promise.
When Egyptians began casting the male Jewish children into the Nile, the plagues followed.
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The Midrash tells us that ultimately this judgment resulted in the killing of the firstborn:
Exalted be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, who foretells the end at the beginning. In connection with Abraham it says: And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge (Genesis 15:14). What was the judgment? The slaying of the firstborn, which was called a plague, as it says: Yet one plague more (11:1). What is the meaning of: "I will judge"? God said: "I will punish them with the slaying of the firstborn," for it says: "Behold, I will smite thy son, even thy firstborn." (Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 15:27)
The killing of the firstborn stands out from all the other plagues as Divine retribution directed toward Pharaoh and all of Egypt. Another Midrash teaches that this was to be the only plague. The others were a reaction to Pharaoh's insolence:
When God at first sought to bring the plagues upon Egypt, He intended to commence with the plague of the firstborn, for it says:Behold, I will slay your son, even your firstborn (Exodus 4:23). Pharaoh then retorted: "Who is the Lord that I should hearken unto His voice?" (5:2). Then God said: "If I bring the plague of firstborn upon him at the outset, he will send them out at once; no, I will bring other plagues upon him first, by this means will I bring them all." (Midrash Rabbah 18:5)
Again we see that the central form of the retribution was the striking of the firstborn. The other plagues were afterthoughts. What was it about the killing of the firstborn that was so severe?
Needless to say, the death of any child is horrific. The logic dictated by God is clearly understood: If you are callous to my children, I will wreak vengeance on your children. This, though, does not explain why specifically the firstborn are singled out.
There are a number of Midrashim which explain the plague and shed light on this issue.
The Mechilta focuses on the immorality of Egypt:
And the Egyptians urged the people that they might send them out of the land in haste, for they said, We shall all be dead men(12:33). They said, "This is not what Moses had decreed, Moses said only the firstborn of Egypt will die." They thought whoever had four or five children would only lose the first. They didn't know that their wives were suspected of sexual immorality, and each of "their" children were actually fathered by different young men. They had transgressed secretly, yet God caused it to become known. (Mechilta Bo)
Unbeknownst to the Egyptians, there were actually many "firstborn" in each family. The humiliation that they suffered must have been tremendous.
This Midrash gives us further insight as to why Egyptian society had to be destroyed, yet does not completely satisfy as an explanation for the centrality of this plague: There is certain poetic justice in the eradication of a society which suffers such severe moral breakdown.5
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In order to fully understand this plague we must appreciate the hierarchy within Egyptian civilization.
It was a society ruled by primogeniture. The first born had absolute power within the family unit. Pharaoh was the firstborn of the firstborn of the firstborn. It was from his birthright that he exercised his power.
The attack against the first born was therefore a powerful polemic against the entire culture of Egypt. The eldest ruled the younger siblings. This is why having slaves was so important to the Egyptians. This gave the lower classes someone else to control and dominate.
Pharaoh controlled the first born as first born of the firstborn; the firstborn controlled the other Egyptians, and the "plain" ordinary Egyptians controlled the slaves.
The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) in his commentary to Exodus explains this idea based on a fascinating observation concerning the song that was sung after the splitting of the sea. The verse reads:
Then sang Moses and the people of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, "I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea."(Exodus 15:1)
...And Miriam answered them, "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea." (Exodus 15:21)
The main part of the song seems to be this idea of the "horse and the rider." The Netziv explains that this verse encapsulates the defeat of Egypt: the philosophy of the "horse and the rider."
As the rider rides on the subjugated horse, so must the rider listen to the officer, and that officer listen to the general, and that general listen to the commander in chief. According to the Netziv, this describes the horrors of the Egyptian society, a series of horse and riders, where the Jewish slaves became the bottom of the proverbial "totem pole" - the lowest horse supporting the entire structure.
This is why the Egyptians were loath to release the slaves, the entire society would crumble without them.
We now understand why the death of the firstborn was so essential to the Exodus, and why the splitting of the sea evoked such a powerful response. The horse and rider philosophy had sunk at sea, they were free. The death of the firstborn was the beginning this final chapter, of the liberation. The leading "riders" were to die.
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TURNING OF THE TABLES
This turning of the tables can be discerned from another Midrash which changes our normative understanding of the plague.
When God sent the plague of the firstborn ... all the firstborn went to speak to their fathers and said "Everything which Moses has said has come true, don't you want us to live? Let us get the Hebrews out of our homes otherwise we are dead." They [the fathers] answered "even if all of Egypt dies they are not leaving." All the firstborn gathered in front of Pharaoh and screamed "Please remove this nation, because of them evil will befall us and you." Pharaoh said to his servants, "Remove them [the protesters] and break their knees." What did they do? Each took a sword and killed his father ... (Midrash Tehillim 136:6, Ancient Tanchuma Bo 18)
In this source one can feel the unraveling of Egyptian society, children rebelling against their fathers.6 The horses are rebelling against their riders, as the underpinning of Egyptian society is forever vanquished.7
We now understand that the death of the firstborn was not just another plague, another sign of Divine might. No, this plague struck at the very epicenter of the Egyptian civilization, and paved the way for liberation.
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THE FIRSTBORN IN JUDAISM
In Judaism the firstborn also has a special role - but it means added responsibility, not a privilege.
As we have seen numerous times, all of Genesis is itself a polemic against the older son.8 Birth does not guarantee position. The grandiose is not espoused as a Jewish ethic. A sage who is of lowly or even illegitimate birth will take precedence over a high priest who is ignorant; likewise, the Torah was given on the smallest mountain.
Jacob/Israel is called the first son; technically this is not true, Esau was the eldest.
At this point, when commenting on the title of "firstborn" the Midrash tells us that God agreed with Jacob and indeed declared him firstborn.
What is the meaning of Israel is my son, my first-born? It refers to Jacob their ancestor who purchased the birthright in order that he might serve God. (Midrash Rabbah 5:7)
Here God confirms that Jacob's willingness to serve God is what transformed him into a "firstborn." On the other hand, "real" firstborns have lost their status:
Originally the Temple service devolved upon the firstborn, but when they committed the sin of the Golden Calf, the Levites, inasmuch as they had not erred in the matter of the calf, were privileged to enter in their stead. (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 4:8)
Divine service utilizes the principle of "first come/ first serve." 9 The firstborn therefore had the right and responsibility to serve God, but the sin of the Golden Calf forfeited for them this lofty responsibility. From the dawn of time there have been those willing to serve God, and others who have ignored or rejected such opportunities.10
The lineage of the Jewish people is the antithesis of Pharaoh, instead of firstborn after firstborn after firstborn, the spiritual legacy which we carry is of those who chose to serve God regardless of station, and at times despite modest ancestry. This is the significance of God's resounding declaration that we are His firstborn.
Others willing to serve in the future will likewise merit this status:
Rabbi Natan said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses: 'Just as I have made Jacob a firstborn, for it says: Israel is My son, My firstborn, so will I make the King Messiah a firstborn, as it says: I also will appoint him firstborn (Psalms 89:28). (Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 19:7)
One day the Messiah himself will merit to be called a firstborn. He will help teach the world that being a child of God transcends lineage. And that being a firstborn of God is about how we lead our lives, it is the manifestation of the image of God within,11 not a question of sequence of birth.
- See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 5:7. God revealed unto Moses that Pharaoh would not let Israel go free before the plague of the first-born; hence there was no need to tell him of this plague later. (return to text)
- See the comments of Rashi to 4:23, and 9:14. There is, however, a Midrash which says that the plague of frogs was worse. See Midrash Rabbah Exodus 15:27. (return to text)
- The Ibn Ezra says that the killing of the first born was the main objective of the Exodus. See Ibn Ezra on Psalms 135:8, a slightly less sweeping statement can be found in his comments to Exodus 34:19. (return to text)
- Commentary of Nachmanides on Genesis 15:13. (return to text)
- The breakdown of Egyptian culture in the moral plane has been instituted in the Torah in the exhortation: Leviticus 18:3 After the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, shall you not do. (return to text)
- The Zohar describes the breakdown in a slightly different manner:
Mark the wondrous punishment that overtook the enemies of Israel. On the night of the Exodus there were three slayings in Egypt. First, the firstborn killed whomsoever they could lay hands on; then, the Holy One executed His judgment at midnight; and, lastly, Pharaoh, on seeing the havoc wrought upon his own household, himself arose and with bitterness and fury smote those princes and nobles who had advised him to persecute Israel ... Having done this, Pharaoh roamed through the market places crying, "Rise up and get you forth from among my people" (lbid. 5:31); and in fear he added, "and bless me also" (v. 32), as if to say, "let me live". Then, so eager was he to be rid of them that he himself accompanied them, as it says, "he sent the people away." Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, Page 45b (return to text)
- One gets a sense of the polemical quality of the plagues from numerous sources. See for example, Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 15:15. Also Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, Page 29a "Esoterically speaking, the ten plagues were wrought by the mighty hand of the Almighty, by the hand that overpowered the grades of the Egyptian divinities, and confused their minds so that they remained helpless. Observe that all their grades, as soon as they emerged into the open to accomplish something that could be seen by all, became powerless to do anything. This was due to the mighty hand which pressed on them." (return to text)
- This idea is evident mystically from the following passage from the Zohar: When they begat children, the first-born was the son of the (serpent's) slime. For two beings had intercourse with Eve, and she conceived from both and bore two children. Each followed one of the male parents, and their spirits parted, one to this side and one to the other, and similarly their characters. On the side of Cain are all the haunts of the evil species, from which come evil spirits and demons and necromancers. From the side of Abel comes a more merciful class, yet not wholly beneficial-good wine mixed with bad. The right kind was not produced until Seth came, who is the first ancestor of all the generations of the righteous, and from whom the world was propagated. (Zohar Genesis 36b) (return to text)
- This is reflected by the protocol of Temple service as can be seen in the Mishna of Tamid or Yoma. (return to text)
- Go back to the beginning of the creation of the world. Adam was the world's firstborn. When he offered his sacrifice, as it says: And it pleased the Lord better than a bullock that hath horns and hoofs (Psalm. 69:32). He donned high priestly garments, as it says: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21). They were robes of honor which subsequent firstborn used. When Adam died he transmitted them to Seth. Seth transmitted them to Methusaleh. When Methusaleh died he transmitted them to Noah.
Noah arose and offered a sacrifice, as it says: And he took of every clean beast... and offered burnt-offerings on the altar (Genesis 8:20). Noah died and transmitted them to Shem. But was Shem a firstborn? Japheth, surely, was the firstborn, as it says: Shem... the brother of Japheth the elder (Genesis 10:21)! Why then did he hand them on to Shem? Because Noah foresaw that the line of the patriarchs would issue from him. There is proof that Shem offered sacrifices, since it says: And Melchizedek, king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High (Genesis 14:18). Now was it to him that the priesthood was given? The priesthood, surely, was not given to any man until Aaron arose. What then is the meaning of the statement here, "and he was priest"? Because he offered sacrifices like priests.
Shem died and handed it on to Abraham. But was Abraham a firstborn? The fact is that because he was a righteous man the birthright was transferred to him, and he offered sacrifices, as it says: And offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son (Genesis 22:13).
Abraham died and handed it on to Isaac. Isaac arose and handed it on to Jacob. But was Jacob a firstborn? No; but you find that Jacob prudently took it [the birthright] from Esau. He said to him: "Sell me first your birthright" (Genesis 25:31). Do you suppose perhaps that it was for no good reason that Jacob asked Esau to sell him the birthright? No! Jacob wished to offer sacrifices and could not, because he was not the firstborn. (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 4:8) (return to text)
- Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik pointed out that by calling us His firstborn, God is clearly saying that He has other children as well. The rage directed against Egypt was partially due to the fact that as long as the Jews were subjugated, they could not receive the Torah and inspire the other "children" by being a "Light unto the nations."(return to text)